The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

"The Voluntary State" by Christopher Rowe: An Appreciation by Susan Marie Groppi

A couple of years ago, I heard Christopher Rowe do a reading at a convention. He started off by explaining to us that the piece he was going to read was a work-in-progress, the prologue to a novel he was working on. He also mentioned that the novel was set in the same world as "The Voluntary State", a novella that had been published at SCI FICTION. After setting all that up for us, he launched into reading the prologue, which was this incredible piece of writing, two kids riding bicycles in this hostile landscape full of semi-sentient semi-animate objects, and half the time I wasn't sure what was going on but I was fascinated anyway, and I swear to god I've never in my life found bicycles as interesting as I did that day. I left the reading with this near-desperate wish that he'd write the damn novel already so that I could read it.

After the convention was over, my curiosity about the novel and that setting led me to find the other story, "The Voluntary State." I pulled up the story from the SCI FICTION website, figuring that I'd just find it and bookmark it and come back to it later, but the first paragraph was kind of intriguing, and I told myself I'd just read a little bit, and instead I found it too compelling to stop, I had to keep reading. And then when I got to the end, I didn't want it to be over, so I stayed at the computer and read it again, and by the end of the second reading I realized almost in a daze that I was late for a meeting.

I'm starting to realize that I may not be up to the challenge of explaining why "The Voluntary State" is one of the most brilliant stories I've ever read. I'll try, but mostly you just need to read it for yourself, because all I'm doing here is trying to attach some kind of articulate explanation to a huge overwhelming feeling of "Oh, wow. This is . . . this is just perfect."

In the early parts of the story, I was pulled in by the strangeness of the world. The idea that these people live in a place where everything around them is alive to some degree, manifested artificial policement who fly in on bicycles, public works projects conducted by cranes (with "acres-broad leaves" that change color with the seasons) that are grown for special projects and go dormant in the winter, predators in the ocean shallows who grow prey lures that look like drowning children. Those kinds of things keep happening throughout the story--that lovely weirdness never lets up--but that's not all that's going on. If that were the extent of the appeal, then it would be a great one-time read, a single flashy thought experiment. But this isn't that kind of story. It's the kind of story that you can read and keep reading, because it's so deep and rich and tangled. It's the kind of story that makes me remember why I love science fiction in the first place.

Link to story.


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